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021219 warming shelter kw.jpg

Billy Packard, a Missoula homeless man, takes refuge from the cold last week in the downtown bus transfer station. The hours were extended temporarily as an emergency response to the cold.

A coalition of groups wants Missoula’s downtown bus transfer station to maintain its extended hours through March, or at least as long as the temperatures regularly are colder than 32 degrees.

During Monday’s city council meeting, members from the General Defense Committee, Democratic Socialists of America, and Food Not Bombs also requested the Mountain Line and UDASH continue to provide evening and morning rides to the Salvation Army during the winter months.

Members of the coalition thanked the city for its efforts, noting that opening the transfer center probably saved lives. But along with finding a permanent shelter, they asked for paid city employees and council members to help now.

“A lot of volunteers have been paying out of pocket for food, clothing and direct medical needs,” Workman said. “This is already becoming something difficult to sustain. It’s only lasting two weeks but we will still have a need for it.”

Bryan von Lossberg, the city council president who’s been working with the various groups, said before the meeting that the after-hour bus trips were part of an emergency response to last week’s frigid temperatures and below-zero wind chill forecasts. He expects the people who put together the plan last week to meet again this week to consider future options as temperatures start to warm a bit.

“I don’t have any sense of what the opportunities are at this point,” von Lossberg said. “Folks had been working really hard to put in place what we could do with the extreme weather leading up to and over the weekend, but what was put in place was a temporary solution to deal with the immediate situation.

“We’ll listen to folks and assess the needs that are out there and what our resources and partnerships are going forward.”

Last week, buses from Mountain Line and the Associated Students of the University of Montana’s UDASH started bringing people from the downtown transfer center to the Salvation Army’s warming shelter on Russell Street, which is about 1.5 miles away.

The shelter couldn’t open until about 10 p.m. due to the Salvation Army’s regular evening programs, meaning that people without homes who couldn’t get into the Poverello Center were stranded on the streets after the Mountain Line transfer center closed around 9 p.m. on weekdays.

The transfer center also typically is closed on weekends, which is when UDASH stepped up to help with the transfers. Last weekend, the transfer center stayed open as temperatures hovered in the single digits and winds made it feel closer to 20 below zero outside on Saturday.

“I stopped by Saturday about 9 p.m. and would say it was pretty full, with standing room and people hunkered down. I’d say there were about 50 people there,” said Corey Aldridge, Mountain Line’s general manager. “UDASH reported they made two trips in the morning, about 6:45 and 7:30, and transported 45 people on Saturday. That’s about par.”

Both Aldridge and Jordan Hess, the director of the ASUM Office of Transportation and also is a city council member, said their organizations are open to consider continuing to help out for the short term. But they also stressed the need for a long-term solution.

“We already have a lot of staff over the weekend, so it’s a case of shuffling things around,” Hess said. “There was a major outpouring of support from the students to run the buses. The big costs of transportation is capital; having and maintaining vehicles. We have a long-term policy of helping out the community.

“I think the city council and city staff are very tuned in to the issue. Unfortunately the government moves more slowly than we would like at times.”

Aldridge said Mountain Line also is there to serve the community, and the extended hours don't have a large financial impact.

Amy Allison Thompson, the executive director of the Poverello Center, said the opening of the Salvation Army warming shelter and the extended hours for the transfer center made a huge difference last weekend.

The Pov has been busy as usual this winter, but it hasn’t been filled to capacity like it was last year, after which the center limited the number of available beds to 175. Thompson said they provided overnight shelter to about 150 people each night during the weekend.

“We haven’t been turning anyone away; it seems the need is being met with the Salvation Army, which I know has been pretty busy,” Thompson said. “It would be much more stressful for us without the Salvation Army and Mountain Line’s transfer center being open.”

The Salvation Army didn’t return a call for comment.

Community members, including volunteers from the groups that have come before the city council during the past two months, have organized volunteer shifts through Feb. 21, depending on the weather, to staff the transfer center and help those needing assistance boarding and riding the bus.

They’re looking for two volunteers per shift during the hours Mountain Line is closed to the public to ensure adequate support. Homeless outreach staff from the Union Gospel Mission is available to provide some training before shifts.

The volunteer schedule is online at the Missoula Rises Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/563298447213940/

While that post said the transfer center is accepting donations, Aldridge and Thompson said the Pov is better equipped to accept and distribute them.

“Our homeless outreach team does work on the streets, engaging with folks at the transfer center and Salvation Army,” Thompson said. “We’re definitely in need of gloves, hand warmers, and coats, which we’re passing out.”

The long-term forecast calls for highs in the mid 30s for the next two weeks, and lows between 9 and 28 degrees. After that, Missoula is looking at highs in the low- to mid-40s for the rest of February, with lows staying in the 20s. That will continue until mid-March, when temperatures are expected to rise into the 50s and the lows will start hitting the 30s.

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